Last month, on a rainy Tuesday afternoon just before Christmas, Dajuan Wagner strolled into a Cherry Hill gym. It was only a minute or two before tip-off of a game between Camden High and Cherry Hill East, and he sat close to the door, at the very end of the first row of bleachers, shaking a hand or two and nodding back at some folks who recognized him - the greatest high school player New Jersey's ever seen.
Mostly, Wagner just sat silently, his eyes following his purple-clad Camden Panthers up and down the court. Sometimes he mouthed some words to the players, uttering instructions they couldn't have heard. When he seemed frustrated, like when a ball slipped out of a Camden guard's hands or clanged off the rim, he leaned in closer, his boots just a few feet from the court.
Watching Wagner watch a basketball game, I got the sense that he was having to hold himself back, using all the power in his 6-2, 200-pound frame to stay off the court. Those who know him say Wagner's personality is defined by the game. On the court, he's a killer. Off it, he's shy.
Wagner is now 28, at a point in his life when many in South Jersey once believed he'd have a trip to the Basketball Hall of Fame all but locked up. But Wagner wasn't in town on an East Coast road trip. He didn't have a few games off from playing with the Cavaliers, or the Warriors, or anybody else. In fact, it's been more than 5 years since he's played in the NBA. "It's hard to tell a 28-year-old that you're at the end of your career," says his father, Milt, now an assistant coach at Auburn. "He hasn't even hit his prime yet."
That's the thing about Wagner, though. He never said it was over. Not on Facebook or Twitter. Not on YouTube. Not even to the local newspapers. He didn't hang it up so much as he just disappeared.
That's why I was at a high school basketball game in Cherry Hill on a crappy Tuesday afternoon, staring at him from across the gym. After years of hearing rumors about Dajuan Wagner, after reams of unreturned letters, of unaswered phone calls and unopened doors, I had found him at a basketball game. If it was truly over, I wanted to hear him say it.
Looking at Wagner, his face still round and boyish, his shoulders still thick like grapefruits beneath his shirt, it's hard to believe it's been more than a decade since he slammed an exclamation point on all the hype that once surrounded him - when on Jan. 16, 2001, he scored 100 points in a high school game and established himself as a player so skilled on the hardwood that the "Messiah" tattoo on his left biceps seemed an apt nickname.
He had already been a local star for years by then. In Camden, people talked reverently about Dajuan Wagner when he was in middle school. In high school, he was one of the nation's best players, scoring more points in New Jersey than anyone before or since. He averaged more than 42 points per game his senior year, and became a regular in the pages of newspapers and magazines all across the country. If anyone saw trouble for Wagner, or believed his destiny was to be anything but an NBA star, they were drowned out by those in Camden who believed he was, at least on the court, flawless.
He went on to play in his one season at the University of Memphis before being drafted sixth overall in the 2002 NBA draft by the lowly Cleveland Cavaliers, a team in dire need of a savior. Just before Christmas that year, the 19-year-old rookie dropped 33 points against the Toronto Raptors. His future seemed certain. "He's going to be a great player in this league one day," Raptors forward Morris Peterson told the Associated Press after the game.
But Wagner would never have a better game in the NBA. For the next 3 years, health problems toppled along like dominoes: a bladder infection, torn cartilage in the right knee, an inflamed liver and pancreas, a sprained ankle, and another surgery on the same knee. He seemed to be the Icarus of basketball, punished for flying too close to the rim. The least worrisome of his problems - chronic stomachaches - had been with him since Memphis. Yet they eventually turned out to be his biggest problem, causing him to lose weight and sapping his strength. When he was finally released by Cleveland after 3 years, he was diagnosed with colitis, a debilitating inflammation of the colon.
Soon after surgery to replace his colon in October 2005, he began a comeback. Plenty of teams expressed interest. "Today, he is more skilled than anybody on the Sixers except Allen Iverson," Dick Jerardi wrote in the Daily News after watching Wagner score 57 in a sweltering summer-league game in 2006.
The Golden State Warriors signed Wagner to a 2-year contract worth $1.6 million. But he scored only four points and was released only a few months later. In the summer of 2007, he signed with Poland's Prokom Trefl Sopot, averaging 8.3 points in six games. "He's a finisher and he's tough," a man with a thick accent says in a YouTube video of Wagner's Prokom highlights. "Now with the Polish team, he's looking to re-find his form."
He never did. After hurting his hip and reinjuring his knee in Poland, he returned to South Jersey, his career seemingly over.
On my first day as a part-time sports reporter at the Courier-Post, Wagner scored 33 points for Camden High School. Those days, his presence in the paper was unavoidable. Although I had never seen him play live or met him in person, it was easy to believe the hype around him; he seemed to live up to it almost daily. By summer 2002, I had moved on to covering news for the paper, and Wagner's body had already begun to turn on him.
I didn't follow Wagner's every move in the NBA, or hear about his health problems in Cleveland. I was busy covering crime in South Jersey, where I spent a lot of time in Camden, one of the nation's most dangerous and poorest cities. I sat in courtrooms, waited for reports in the police station, and visited rowhouses, taking notes while grandmothers grieved over their babies - some gunned down only a block or two from the church where my mother was baptized. One thing I did know was that Wagner's rookie season was over when I wrote this sentence: "A federal indictment names 13 defendants, including an alleged drug supplier described as the stepfather of former Camden High School basketball star Dajuan Wagner."
Wagner was often in the courtroom during the trial of his stepfather, Leonard "Pooh" Paulk. It was his fame, the fear that his family could be kidnapped and held for ransom, that led Paulk to stockpile weapons, his defense attorney claimed. Federal prosecutors saw it otherwise, believing Paulk was a violent drug dealer. Wagner never testified and never said a word to reporters before or after the hearings. By the time his stepfather was sentenced, Wagner was recovering from colon surgery. Paulk was given a life sentence.
When I came to the Daily News in 2008, the idea was to bring some South Jersey to the paper. Basically, anything I found interesting from Trenton to Cape May Point was fair game for me to write about. I still wound up in Camden quite a bit, looking for a homeless boxer, covering the trial of homegrown terrorists, listening to prostitutes choke up when I asked about their kids. By then, I had lost track of Wagner, as had almost everybody else.
Over the years, people had seen him around: standing on the sideline during his son's football games; dishing out advice to youngsters at local basketball games; hanging out in Camden with his friends and family. His legacy in the city - where he once shoveled snow from basketball courts to play ball, where he led the Panthers to a Tournament of Champions victory, where he was once described as the "Prince of the City" - is forever etched.
"The things he's done, he has to be the best who ever came out of Camden," says Milt Wagner, a former Camden star himself, who won an NCAA title with Louisville and an NBA championship with the Los Angeles Lakers.
Not everyone was enamored with Dajuan's presence, though. Police officers I spoke with in Camden would often bring up his name in passing, saying they had seen him here or there, driving some big SUV. Wagner owned a big, new house in West Deptford. I got the sense some cops felt he should stay there.
In October 2008, I wrote a story about Rasheed Land, a Camden man who allegedly had gone berserk while high on PCP and injured two police officers. Police said Land was an enforcer for some drug operations. They were annoyed that Wagner, Land's cousin and friend, had bailed him out of jail. When Land was shot and killed less than a year later, the Inquirer wrote that "police accounts have not involved Wagner in the shooting."
Last year, I stumbled upon a story in the Newark Star-Ledger that talked of a Dajuan Wagner comeback, a topic Wagner seemed somewhat reluctant to expound upon. He wouldn't talk about his finances. He wouldn't let the reporter see his home, or talk with his family, or take a picture of his son. He did say it was Dajuan Jr. who inspired him to give it one more try.
That was in February. For weeks afterward, I expected see his face pop up "SportsCenter," an anchor announcing, "Remember Dajuan Wagner? He was one of the most hyped . . . " When the NBA lockout happened, it seemed to be another unlucky break for him. But then the season was saved, and he still didn't appear on a roster. "Everyone has forgotten about Dajuan Wagner," an NBA scout recently told me. "No one talks about him."
This fall, I started trying to reach out to Wagner, with no luck. He didn't respond to phone calls or letters. When I visited his home in West Deptford, it was dark and empty-looking. If not for the dog barking inside, I would have thought no one lived there. Arthur "OG" Barclay, Wagner's best friend and former teammate at Camden and Memphis, was hard to reach too. He eventually told me that Wagner was shy, that years of national media coverage and life in the NBA hadn't changed that.
Wagner made about $10.7 million from his rookie contract in Cleveland and smaller but still sizable sums from Golden State and the Polish team. By all accounts, he doesn't live extravagantly. There are no statues on his lawn in West Deptford, no indoor basketball court with his initials painted on it. He does have a net in the driveway.
Barclay said he was trying to set something up for me, but I got the feeling that Wagner would avoid an interview if he could. Finally, after weeks of failed attempts and false leads, after numerous pleas with Barclay to help me out, he offered a simple suggestion: "Why don't you just go the game today?" he said. "That's the best place to catch him."
If you want to find Dajuan Wagner, go to a Camden basketball game. Duh.
The game, it turned out, was a good one, with Camden and Cherry Hill East trading leads throughout. While he watched, Wagner rarely said a word to the people sitting around him. His son, a spitting image of his father, goofed around with other kids in the bleachers.
At one point, when the ball rolled out of bounds and rested close to Wagner's feet, he cracked a smile and feigned shooting a three-pointer. Then he let another guy throw the ball back in. It reminded me of something his agent, Leon Rose, told me: "He's a very low-key person, but you certainly don't want to mess with him on the court."
I approached him at halftime, while his son went to the concession stand. If Wagner didn't want to talk, he didn't act like it. He was soft-spoken and polite, shy even. He told me he's on the court almost every day, alone in empty gyms and or playing in pickup games that have become profoundly meaningful to him. His skills, his dead-on radar for the basket, haven't left, but he did say he needs time to feel right before he thinks about coming back. He needs to be confident that his body can do what it once did without question. "My goal is to be out there playing basketball someday," he says. "No one's ever had the problems I've had and come back. I'm getting there. This is the best I've ever felt in a long, long time. People think I'm out there just sitting around, but I'm not."
Over the last 18 months, Wagner has been training at a facility just outside of Ocean City. Jon Porter, the strength-and-conditioning specialist at Elite Athletic Performance in Seaville, said Wagner is about 90 percent ready. He trains like "a football player," Porter says, and straps 100-pound weights around his waist when he does pull-ups. "He does everything I ask, no questions asked."
Porter thinks Wagner could be ready for the 2012-13 NBA season. "It's a matter of getting the legs back to game shape," he says. "His shot is incredible. That hasn't changed at all. He can shoot from pretty much anywhere. It's almost surreal to watch."
The ability to score, to find his shots, has never been the issue with Wagner. It's his health that has. "If he said tomorrow, 'I am playing,' there would be such a buzz. The whole league would be abuzz," the NBA scout says. "Can he play? Is he healthy? Those are the million-dollar questions."
The scout, who asked not to be identified, says Wagner needs to showcase his talents in competitive games, either in Europe or the NBA Development League. One of the advantages of not having played all these years, the scout says, is Wagner's body hasn't taken NBA-style abuse for years.
"If he's in good shape and he's healthy, then go show us. The league is dying for talent," the scout said. "If Dajuan Wagner is a guy who came off your bench and gave you 11 or 12 points, he could fit anywhere."
Still, neither Wagner nor anyone in his inner circle will commit to a date.
"I honestly don't know the timetable," Barclay says. "He's been working out for a while now. He's definitely going to give it another try."
Even when he was being hailed as "Prince of the City," in Camden, Wagner says, he never felt the pressure, never let the hype get to him, because it was always about basketball. Sure, an entire city hitched its hopes to his success. But he was always the best.
"I didn't ask for the attention, but it came and I thrived on it," he says. "It made me tougher."
Expecting Dajuan Wagner to be the next Michael Jordan wasn't fair to him, of course. But you take hope where you can find it in Camden, even if you know better, even if you know those hopes so often tend to wind up languishing in prison cells or lost in corruption.
I know exactly when I learned a lesson about false hope in Camden. It was June 2005, and I was covering a story for the Courier-Post about three little boys who had vanished. I was certain that they were alive and that I'd eventually be writing a feel-good story about the boys bounding back home. Instead, on a sweltering summer day, the father of one of the boys found them in the trunk of a car, all dead.
In Camden, it's best to be realistic.
A few months after those boys died, the Courier-Post had a story about Wagner making his first NBA comeback after Cleveland declined to sign him for a fourth year. He felt good. He was making shots. NBA teams were interested.
Not long after, he was getting his colon removed.
Wagner might have been the closest thing Camden has ever seen to personifying Walt Whitman's dream of a "city invincible," something almost perfect in a city plagued by so many problems. Now he's an underdog, just like his hometown, and I find myself rooting for him. Not to be a savior, but just to be a basketball player again. Even that is a long shot, for sure, but he's made plenty of them in the past.